Monday 20 August 2012

Good Story Requires Incomplete Exposition

Exposition is where you explain things to the reader in the text. It’s a necessary part of storytelling to help the reader understand what’s going on in a story, especially when it comes to stuff the reader won’t automatically know. The MC might work for a government department and the reader needs to know what the department does, so you have to find a way to get that info to them. When handled badly it can read very clunky.

But there is also another expositional technique that gives the reader information in a very high impact and emotional manner. This is where you reveal something that the reader is able to convert into an understanding of the situation without you having to explain it.

As an example, let’s say Debbie’s dating Gary, a soldier. He calls her and admits he’s been cheating on her and has fallen for the other woman and wants to break up with Debbie. Debbie is obviously livid. She vows to get her own back. Sometime later she bumps into an old army buddy of Gary’s and decides to sleep with him to spite Gary (this is fiction—obviously women don’t do this sort of thing in real life). She goes back to his place and sees a photo of him and his army pals. Gary’s in the picture. In a wheelchair.

So, the point is she realises the real reason Gary dumped her wasn’t because he was cheating on her, but it isn’t spelled out. Exactly how obvious or subtle you handle placing this information in front of the reader is a matter of personal judgement. In the case of something like a murder mystery you may not want the ramifications to be clear until much later.

Now, Debbie could have found out about Gary’s well-meaning deception in a much more direct manner. Her friend Brenda could have just called up and said: Hey, you know how you thought Gary was cheating on you? Turns out what actually happened was... etc.

The effect on Debbie would be pretty much the same, but the effect on the reader would be far less impactful.

However, even though you don’t want to spell things out immediately, you do want to go into the details of what this revelation means to Debbie, both in how she feels and what she does. So her ringing Brenda after she sees the photo to talk about the effect it had on her (including how she find out) is not only okay, it’s recommended. Once the reader has been sideswiped by a sudden realisation, you want to follow up with a nice big emotional punch in the face.

In order to use this technique in your own writing all you have to do is find somewhere in your story where a character discovers some new piece of information and then work out a way for them to make that discovery visually. Not that you can’t do it through dialogue, but if you do it through what a character sees, then you can be pretty sure the reader will draw conclusions in tandem with them. 
Bonus points if you know what Cary just figured out. 

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Anonymous said...

Wanted to stop by and say thank you for your recent visit to my blog. I'll have to take a few minutes and check out some of your other posts.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Visual clues are more fun!

LD Masterson said...

Another of your posts I'm going to bookmark to come back to. And of course I know what Cary just figured out. But then, I've seen An Affair to Remember a million times. (estimated count)

mooderino said...

@Susanne-you're welcome. Thanks for dropping by.

@alex-if i'd just said that it would've been a much shorter post.

@LD-best road safety PSA ever made.

cleemckenzie said...

I know! I know! *author claps hand and jumps up and down* An Affair to Remember. She never meets him because she's struck by a car and crippled. He's just discovered the reason he was stood up. Do I get a prize?

As to exposition, it's great when a character discovers something at the same time the reader does, but it's also exciting when the reader knows something the character doesn't. The whole time he's reading he's urging that character to make the right decisions and, of course, that character doesn't. Great tension opportunities. Love it when you talk exposition!

Lydia Kang said...

Yes, yes, this is so true!

You know, I love your posts. I included your blog as one to read for aspiring writers, on a tab over on my blog.

mooderino said...

@clee-I imagine all the people that have stood me up over the years had similarly good reasons (that's what I tell myself).

@Lydia-thanks for putting me on your tab.

Bish Denham said...

Excellent explanation!

Beverly Diehl said...

All recent b-f's have been informed, "If you ever stand me up without calling or texting, there had better be a death in the family. Preferably yours." Love An Affair to Remember.

Great tips for exposition - I tend to share too much in the beginning of a story, to make a character likeable, but I need to find other ways, and save the exposition for the very end. As always, you rock. :-)

mooderino said...


@Beverly-you're very kind.

Charmaine Clancy said...

You always have great information here, and now you're hosting another site? Don't know how you keep up! I'd like to see the twist in Gary and Debbie's story where she works hard at winning him back by becoming his friend and showing she'd be there no matter what, only to ultimately find out Gary really is seeing someone else.
And yes, remember the above movie well, well played Moody, well played.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine-the other site is a bi-weekly collection of posts on writing from ohter bloggers. More work for them than me.

Julie Daines said...

Thanks for this great writing tip!

nutschell said...

I'm always happy to discover a new technique to give my story more layers. Love this, moody! THanks for sharing. :)

Jay Noel said...

I'd much rather show than tell, but sometimes you do have to give the reader enough info. so things make sense. As long as it's not spoonfed.

mooderino said...


@nutschell-YVM too.

@Jay-as long as it's interesting I think you have lots of leewway.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

This is a tricky thing to do well. A writer can be too subtle that the reader doesn't pick up on it. You have to employ beta-readers in order to find out for sure.

mooderino said...

@Michael-it's a balancing act for sure, but one that gets easier to judge over time.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Though I am a bit late on this post, I would have hated to miss this post. I loved it. At times I struggle with exposition, now I think I can manage with your tip :)

Qasim Khan said...

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